As I watch the thermometer hit twenty eight degrees on January 6 th, 2000 the hot and humid July 5 th of 1999 seems long ago. That hot and windy July date marked the first day of the second leg of a 3530 mile cross country trip that I did with my 17 year old son Adam. Riding cross country, for me was a good way to lose 25 pounds, control my diabetes, bond with my son, do the mandatory college visitation thing and at the same time have some fun on my bike. Beginning in early 1998 the scheme for this adventure took on a series of transformations throughout the year. Originally suggested by my son as a way to meet up for a family reunion in Michigan, it soon morphed into a cross country east-west trek with his, then 49 year old dad.
Prior to our departure a training ride accident tore out my left shoulder ligaments but, that's another story. Before the accident I had plans for converting my Cannondale R500 into a touring machine. The accident left my R500 unscathed but I was spooked and decided it would be safer to ride a Lightspeed "Blue Ridge", specifically built for touring. Adam would retrofit his R500 for touring, after all he was young and could easily withstand the punishment of an aluminum frame. My pre-accident training consisted of rides averaging 20 to 30 miles every other day, while Adam's training consisted of practicing guitar licks with his blues band. Collecting routes and maps proved to be the most difficult aspect of the planning. "Adventure Cyclist" had cue sheets for a northern route to Michigan, but the difficulty was in connecting up with this route in Ripley, NY. Originally the plan was to travel Route 6 through Pennsylvania, fortunately an internet news group inquiry resulted in a response which provided me with what proved to be a lightly trafficked scenic route that connected us to Ripley via the Southern Tier Route: one of four in the series titled "New York Bicycle Touring Guide" by William Hoffman. This Southern Tier Route used lightly traveled state and county highways from New York City to Westfield and Buffalo.
What and how to pack? Adam was intent on roughing it with a tent and cooking equipment, I on the other hand was intent on using my plastic and moteling and restauranting it. Brother in-law Bill suggested a compromise, I should motel it while Adam camped in the parking lot. We ended up with Adam carrying the tent (but no cooking gear) while I carried my plastic. Besides the tent and plastic our gear consisted of 1 small 35 mm camera, 4 extra rolls of film, rain gear, first aid kit, three changes of underwear, socks and shirts, a pair of long pants, sweatshirts, sandals, toothpaste, toothbrushes, repair tools, folding extra tires, tubes, extra spokes, a small portable shortwave radio, batteries for the radio, my diabetic supplies (which included blood testing machines, syringes, vials of insulin, glucogon for emergencies, an epi pen, and a Tower Records insulated canvas lunch container with an ice pack to keep it all cool), 6 water bottles, a pack of powdered gatorade, snacks, reams of maps, pre-paid post cards for keeping in touch with friends and family, a cell phone with extra battery and AC charger, and finally two bike covers to protect the bikes at night: a grand total of 35 pounds per bike. The bike covers alone weighed several pounds and midway into the trip we shipped them off to brother in-law Bill (for the second leg, in 1999, worried about tornadoes, I added the weight of a small Radio Shack CB radio). My shake-down ride the night before was indeed shaky. I quickly discovered that all my gear had to be perfectly balanced in order to ensure a smooth ride. I used the backs of my maps and cue sheets to keep a diary of the trip, and sketched stick figure illustrations to archive events of the day on the backs of the pre-stamped post cards which I then sent anonymously to friends and family.
Post Card from Luther, Michigan
If, for me, riding cross country was a weight reduction program, for Adam it was pure adventure. There were several challenges to meet. The wind, which at times kept our pace to 9 mph, the heat that blistered and of course the hills that were always unexpected. Keeping all of my diabetic meds cool was a secondary challenge, and of course, what to eat while traveling with my vegetarian son, especially in Montana, Beef Country, U.S.A. ( I'm still trying to calculate how many grill cheese sandwiches we managed to put away) came in a close third. As mentioned early on, Adam was intent on roughing it with his tent and cooking equipment. Our first leg, in 1998, started out with either motels or B&B's at the end of each stop, camping in the early stages was not an option since we did not pass many sites along NY's Route 17K. Perhaps it was the comfort of the motels that grew on Adam? At our first camping opportunity his outlook seemed to temporarily change. We had arrived in the town of Owego, New York, it was the end of a day's ride and we were having some emergency repairs done at a local bike shop.
"Any good motels around?" I asked.
The owner, a real backwoodsman-renaissance type, seemed shocked, "You guys don't want to camp? There's a great camp site one and a half miles from here. There's a great Italian restaurant nearby too." We memorized the directions and headed off towards what I considered to be a truly a bucolic campground. I was ready for a change.
"Where do you want to set up the tent?" I asked.
"I don't care, you pick a spot."
"No, you're the one carrying the tent, you pick a spot!"
"I told you, I don't care, you pick a spot."
One thing that I soon discovered: don't argue with a tired
and hungry teenager.
We went back and forth with the You pick a spot! routine. After about five rounds Adam finally seemed to be giving in, "Do you think that they have showers here?" I assured him that they must, but he wanted to see for himself. We finally located the rustic showers and upon further inspection Adam asked, "How far do you think it is to the motel?"
We continued to Motel it until we arrived in Northern Michigan, at which time we were forced to camp. Camping turned out to be far more pleasant than moteling. We reached our first stage final destination, the Road Ends sign,
"Road Ends" sign, 1251 miles later, in Leelanau State Park
1251 miles later, in Leelanau State Park, on August 19th 1998. Both my wife Sally, and younger son Daniel, were there to meet us with a van to take us back to Ridgewood, New Jersey.
For stage two of our cross country trek we started in Bowling Green, Ohio and reached St. Mary's Campground in the Rocky Mountains of Montana in early August . During the course of our second leg in 1999, we succeeded in shattering two myths:
Myth #1 Don't bike from east to west, the prevailing westerly winds will kill you.True, for the first three days out of Ohio the winds were brutal and unrelenting, but for the rest of our journey the winds were at our back. Local farmers confirmed that the Westerly Winds Theory was pure myth. We meet many a west to east cyclist that rued the day they purchased flight tickets to take them to Washington State so that they could bike back east, with the wind at their backs.
Myth #2 was admittedly my own myth. I thought that until we hit Montana our ride would be flat. It never occurred to me that riding north up the west bank of the Mississippi was very hilly. Indeed, the hills in Iowa, combined with gravel roads and heat, made this one of the more challenging segments of our second leg. In retrospect the Adirondack mountains from our first year's leg, posed the greatest climbing challenges. Once we hit North Dakota, the road became unrelentingly flat. Towns were few and far between, with only a few scattered hay stacks to offer minimal shade and a place to lean our bikes against. Sighting the first distant water towers became a daily travel game, for the water tower marked the possibility of civilization, a grilled cheese sandwich, gatorade and perhaps a place to sleep.
From the day we left NJ, the further west we cycled the friendlier people became. This phenomena was explained to us by one of the locals when we crossed the North Dakota border, On the prairie people depend on each other all the time. Invariably people stopped to ask us if we needed water or directions, strangers offered to put us up for the night, if we looked hungry people offered us food. No one honked or tried to run us off the road. People waved and said hello.
On August 8th we reached our final destination, Saint Mary's, Montana.
My bicycle was shot, broken rear rim and malfunctioning gears, even so we cycled over the great divide at Logans Pass and coasted to a halt in West Glacier. I met my goal (lost 25 lbs.) and though my son did some college visitations along the way, his primary goal of having an adventure was fulfilled.
He also used the experience to write the following college application essay.
America by Bicycle
Over the span of two summers my father and I traveled from our
home in New Jersey to Northern Michigan, and then later from Ohio to Western
Montana. It was not a trip based upon a final destination, but a
trip focused on the journey itself. The longer we lingered, the more
we could see, and so we decided to piece our way across America by bicycle.
On a bicycle I faced the obstacles of the land one on one. I felt the wind pushing against me, the sun beating down on me and the rain as it washed the heat off of my body. It took a couple weeks before the dust of the prairies finally subsided to the smell of the fresh mountain air. Even upon reaching the mountains, I still had to push myself up and over every hill with my own sweat and determination, because on a bike there are no shortcuts, and there is nothing to help you out when you are tired and sore. There is no motor to push you along, and there is no radio to cloud your mind with preconceived thoughts. You just sit on your saddle, watching the scenery float ever so slowly by, and you pedal, you contemplate and you discover.
In the 3,500 miles we covered in those summers, I saw more of America than I had ever even imagined could exist. I saw places where there was nothing but cows, and I saw places where cow pastures were crowded out by corn, which grew for as far as the eye could see. I saw places where corn didn't even grow, but instead vast amounts of open space reached out towards the horizon. I saw mountains that could dwarf even the tallest skyscraper and I saw lakes and rivers that pushed their way through the landscape with awe inspiring power. All in all, I saw just how big this country is, and I realized how much more of it I have yet to discover.
When I look back at those months that I spent biking, I realize that the simplicity of the trip was one of the most important things. The monotony of the endless rows of crops, the ever present spinning of the pedals and the hours and hours devoted to free and undeveloped thought lent themselves to some of the most important days of my life. I learned that I don't need a hectic lifestyle spent in pursuit of money and status to be happy. On a bike, money, designer labels and social status don't make you ride any faster or make the pedaling any easier, and now I realize that it is the same thing in life, because happiness is something that should not be a goal for the final destination, but rather our focus for the journey there.
Adam rides the Going-to-the Sun Highway
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